Beata works as a qualified primary school teacher, a councillor for drug and alcohol addiction and a farm caretaker for organic olive grow.
It was a few years since my grown children had left our little farmhouse in Western Australia,
Our annual Christmas gatherings had been disrupted by Covid.
So when the winter school holidays approached and the harvest was nearing completion, I packed my bag to venture out to their new homes.
I hadn't visited these places before and it made me realise how little I knew about this big island that I'd called home for the past thirty years. Before Covid, my holidays were usually spent in the northern Europe that I'd left behind. Suddenly, with the freedom of open borders, I was standing at Perth airport, wondering what awaited me on the other side of the country. Northern Europe was familiar to me but Australia (except for a little patch in Western Australia) was not.
My first flight took me to the most northern capital city of Australia, Darwin. It's the most remote, with the highest population of Indigenous people. My son greeted me at the airport early in the morning, his bush hat firmly pushed down onto his head. I disappeared into his muscly and tanned arms as someone picked up my luggage, smiling broadly at me when I turned around. A dark, pretty girl with the biggest brown eyes I'd ever seen, stretched out her hand as she balanced my backpack on her other arm: “G’day! Welcome to the top end.”
The pair of them were working on new solar panel fields around Darwin, stretching as far as our eyes could see. “In the next decade, all of Darwin will run on this energy,” my son said proudly as he hugged his girlfriend.
He had to go back to work, so Miranda drove me down a well traveled road,
A place in Kakadu National Park is where her people came from.
It was the middle of the day and the sun burnt down on our skulls as Miranda passed me a spare hat and a bottle of water. We ventured down a rocky path lined with tall trees and green palms toward rocky outcrops, enveloping us on all sides. After I managed to scramble up the first hill, I was overwhelmed by majestic views of the endless flat country below, including snaking rivers, waterfalls and green patches where wild ducks feasted. “That's the failed rice growing enterprise, benefiting only the water birds now,” someone commented from behind me. When I turned around, a pleasant looking young man smiled at me sadly, introducing himself as Miranda’s brother. “You see, there's always someone from the east coming here to make quick money, only to leave in a hurry. This ancient environment doesn't suffer fools.”
“In order to survive here, you need to respect this land and treat it as a living breathing thing. Not a profit making machine,” Miranda nodded. They took me by the hand to lead me to an ancient cave, on top of an outcrop. It was the biggest cave I'd ever seen. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I realised that the ceiling was covered in earth coloured pictorial symbols and carvings. “The eldest symbol dates to sixty thousand years ago and the newest is only a few decades old. Then, people in this area warned other tribes of the change in weather patterns, influencing the migration of the animals in the wet and of violent and dangerous storms.”
“Do you mean climate change?”
They smiled at each other: “Of course. We're part of nature.
We live in it and with it. We've known for a long time what's coming.”
I noticed on Miranda’s brother's name tag, that he was a National Park representative. “You work here?” I asked him and he nodded: “We both went to Sydney to study environmental science at uni. It's the only way that we can protect what remains of our land. And the only way to be taken seriously by mainstream Australians.”
“You didn't want to stay in the city like most young people do, making more money?” I asked. They looked at each other before they shook their heads: “It's hard for you to understand, as a migrant who came here to seek a better life. It's just another place to you. But for us, this land is part of us. It's our reason to live, a living breathing thing, a true family member.”
“Look,” he pointed at a carving of a long line which joined many symbols from different centuries together: “We're all interconnected. What connects us as one, is the country that we come from, that we live on and disappear back into once we're gone.”
“This cave was on the crossroads of many song lines. Tribes moving through this area left messages for each other, warning of dangers and passing knowledge.”
I spotted a figure in white chalk at the bottom of the cave wall with symbols above it. I looked at Miranda. She nodded: “This is a carving of the first white man spotted in the area. There's a warning, he behaves without reason, and acts to kill.”
“There's no such warning here before this, not even regarding the crocodiles that are prevalent in this area. They traverse the land in the wet but behave according to the rules of nature. The white man follows no rules, just his killer instinct.”
I shared a plate of buffalo meat with bush tomatoes and damper,
Under the stars, next to the fire, we tucked into our swags for the night.
The next morning, Miranda drove me back to Darwin, on the eve of Northern Territory Day. Families sat on the banks of the Timor Sea, enjoying barbecues and letting off fire crackers. Asian, Indigenous, Torres Island and white families mingled. As I smelt their exotic dishes and heard the different languages, it felt like a true melting pot of cultures, and worthy of celebration.
After a few days, I boarded another plane to fly to Melbourne, the most southern capital city of mainland Australia. My daughter was there to meet me, armed with parkas and skis. We drove four hours north toward Victoria Alps, which were covered in fresh winter snow. Under the second highest peak of the Victoria Alps, Mt Feathertop, I met a Nepalese guide. “She came to study in Australia, before deciding to settle here. Now we work in the same environmental agency,” my daughter explained as she introduced us.
It wasn't an easy task for me to follow in the footsteps of these two strong girls. They managed to slide on their skis up the steep climbs with an ease that I couldn't muster. At the end, I waved them away: “Go, girls! Prepare hot tea for me, in the shelter under the peak.” I paid careful attention as I slid down the icy hills, but didn't realise that I'd missed the turn off. Instead, I continued on through unexplored terrain toward the unknown. Meanwhile the surroundings around me turned to milky white fog. All I could see were swirls of watery snowflakes, dancing around me in the strong wind that pushed me along. My strength was nearly gone as I dropped down in the middle of another icy incline, not knowing where I was. Suddenly, the Nepalese guide was beside me with a flask: “Drink up.” I gulped the hot tea gratefully as she looked at me worryingly: “You can slide off the cliff when you don't know where you're going. I've met many silly people here just wearing trainers on their feet, beating their chests proudly and claiming that they're from Switzerland and these hills are nothing compared to the Alps. I tell them that I'm from the Himalayas, and that bad weather can kill you anywhere.”
I followed her back to the shelter that I'd missed. My daughter had prepared hot soup over a fire, and as we waited there for the bad weather to pass, they told me of their climbing expeditions to the last remaining glaciers around the world. They said that it was important to raise awareness of the impact that global warming was having. When the weather cleared up, we put on snow shoes to cross the last part of white terrain to the peak. We battled together step by step in the strong wind. The view was spectacular in all directions, just icy white peaks. Except for one spot, where there were square black buildings with steel towers.
“Who would build a factory here?”
“That's a famous ski resort!
It does looks ugly from here and it obscures the view. Here in Australia, there's not much snow on the side of the mountains, like there is in Europe.”
“Still, I don’t understand why people have to ruin nature in order to enjoy it. What's wrong with using back country skis or snow shoes instead of ski lifts? Making the least impact you can while being at one with the mountains?”
Back in Melbourne, the girls went back to work while I wandered around the streets of Melbourne, stopping to admire the historical ‘Princess Theatre’, which was barely visible among the shiny glass skyscrapers. I heard someone nearby shouting into his phone about dropping share prices. Suddenly the phone was thrown in my direction, hitting me on the side of my head, before dropping next to my feet. “Fuck! I lost that deal!” A young man dressed in an expensive suit picked up his phone, ignoring me before zooming off in a sports car which was parked in front of the theatre. He was shouting into his phone again, with one hand on the steering wheel. Before he turned the corner, an old lady crossing the road dropped her grocery bag in fright as he roared through the zebra crossing in front of her. I hurried to help her pick up her items before the crossing light changed: “He drives like that and no one charges him,” she told me, shaking her head: “My son recently paid a five hundred dollar fine for talking on his phone while driving. Only the poor pay. The privileged never do.”
I thought about what I'd just witnessed as I walked back to my hotel, before collecting my luggage and heading to the airport. Miranda’s brother and this young man were of a similar age and living in the same country, yet their lives couldn't be more different.
My last night in the snow.
Canberra, the capital city in the east of Australia.
my youngest son was preparing to start work at Parliament House. His Moroccan girlfriend had migrated to Australia from the Middle East and she greeted me in a fashionable veil at the airport. She was full of excitement: “He's so nervous! Parliament is sitting this week and the minister he's working for has given him so much to do.”
“How was your first day in parliament?” I asked my youngest son as I met him on the porch when he arrived on his bicycle from Parliament House. He gave me a tired smile before going inside to help his girlfriend cook dinner. As we enjoyed their favourite homemade mushroom pie, my son shared the painful scene that he'd witnessed in parliament.
“What else do you expect from her?” Samira said, pointing to her veil: “Do you remember how she disrespected all Australian Muslim women by entering the parliament dressed as a Muslim once?”
My son sighed: “But walking out at the opening of parliament as the acknowledgement of the first people of this country is read, is truly shameful. Especially as we're trying so hard as a nation to learn from the past, to heal and unite.”
“She's a bully, and nothing else! She's probably paid to bring division to Australia, but she won't succeed. Australians don't suffer fools.” I smiled at them, clinking my champagne glass with theirs.
“Pauline Hanson likes to abuse people who are different to her. The abuse starts, as well as ends, in the hands of the abuser, and not the abused. It's her problem that she can’t see five centimetres from her nose. Even stronger glasses won't help! She's truly insignificant and not worthy of spoiling this evening.” Samira gently kissed my son's cheek: “You're there to make a difference and to help build a better world. The likes of Pauline Hanson will die after her, once and for all.”
Flying back to Perth, I smiled as I looked down on the parched heart of Australia that stretched below me. I realised that I needed to explore more of this land that I now called home, because I knew so little about my adopted land. But my children were building their futures here and knew it well. The next generation will know it even better, ensuring that the Australia that we dreamt about when we arrived here thirty years ago with one suitcase and two wide-eyed children, our heads full of dreams about the Great Southern Land, is truly possible.